The New York Times
March 7, 2009
Obama Set to Reverse Bush’s Stem-Cell Restrictions
By David Stout and Gardiner Harris
WASHINGTON — President Obama will announce Monday that he is reversing Bush administration limits on federal financing for embryonic stem cell research as part of a pledge to separate science and politics, White House officials said Friday.
As a presidential candidate, Mr. Obama spoke out in favor of stem cell research, so his intention to undo the curbs put in place by President George W. Bush is not surprising. But the decision is nonetheless of great interest, involving a long-controversial intersection of science and personal moral beliefs.
The officials said that advocates of unfettered stem cell research, as well as about 30 Democratic and Republican lawmakers who support it, had been invited to a White House ceremony scheduled for 11:45 a.m. Eastern time, when Mr. Obama is expected to make an announcement.
One person familiar with planning for the event said the president would also speak about a general return to “sound science” in his administration, as a fulfillment of his campaign promise to draw a demarcation line between politics and science. The Bush administration was often accused of trying to shade, or even suppress, the findings of government scientists on climate change, sex education, contraceptives and other issues, as well as stem cells.
Mr. Obama’s announcement is not likely to lead to any immediate change in government policy, since it may take many months for the National Institutes of Health to develop new guidelines for research.
Still, research advocates are expected to push for the process to go as quickly as possible to ensure that universities have time to submit grant proposals that can be reviewed and accepted before September 2010, when the health institutes must commit the last of the $10.4 billion given to the N.I.H. as part of the economic stimulus program.
Because embryonic stem cells are capable of developing into any type of cell in the body, many scientists believe that they may one day be able to provide tissues to replace worn-out organs or nonfunctioning cells and, thus, offer powerful new treatments for diabetes, heart disease, Parkinson’s disease and other ailments. Some researchers say the stem cells may even be used someday to treat catastrophic injuries like damage to the spinal cord.
But many people have a moral problem with embryonic stem cell research because creation of the cells entails destruction of human embryos. For that reason, Mr. Bush ordered in August 2001 that federal research be limited to lines of cells that were already in existence, since the embryo destruction for those had already taken place.
The main suspense about what Mr. Obama would do centered on whether he would seek to undo the Bush-era restrictions through legislation or by executive order. The event set for Monday indicates that he might have decided on the latter course, although one person expected to attend the announcement said he understood that the president might also seek to involve Congress.
Advocates of stem cell research have been hoping for an order lifting all restrictions and allowing scientists and ethicists at the N.I.H., not the White House, to make decisions related to stem cell research.
One prominent advocate of stem cell research is Larry Soler, executive vice president for government relations and operations at the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. Mr. Soler said in a telephone interview Friday that he was sure that Mr. Obama would indeed signal a return to an era of “scientists making scientific decisions.”
Discussions about stem cell research have often been deeply personal as well as scientific. Advocates of unrestricted research note that the cells are typically obtained from embryos that have been abandoned by couples seeking in-vitro fertilization and that the embryos would be discarded anyway.
But many of those opposed to the research say the embryos are nothing less than tiny human beings, with souls, and that destroying them is akin to murder. They argue that research on embryos that would be thrown out is a slippery moral slope to be avoided by a decent society.
Critics of embryonic stem cell research also argue that scientists can use different types of stem cells, like those found in amniotic fluid or the placenta. But supporters of using embryonic cells say those are by far the most promising.
No matter what is announced Monday, the debate over embryonic stem cell research will not subside. That was clear from the reaction unleashed Friday.
“It must be Friday night because word leaks of yet another deadly executive order by President Obama,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, calling Mr. Obama’s intention “a slap in the face to Americans who believe in the dignity of all human life.”
But the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation praised the president’s plan.
“By removing politics from science,” said Peter T. Wilderotter, the organization’s president and chief executive, “President Obama has freed researchers to explore these remarkable stem cells, learn from them and possibly develop effective therapies using them.”
The actor Christopher Reeve died in 2004, nine years after being injured in a horseback riding accident. His wife died in 2006. “The Reeves’ belief in the promise of stem cell research is a part of their lasting legacy,” Mr. Wilderotter said.
Among the lawmakers reportedly invited to the White House on Monday are Senators Orrin G. Hatch of Utah and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Representative Michael N. Castle of Delaware, all Republicans; Senators Dianne Feinstein of California, Tom Harkin of Iowa and Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Representative Diana DeGette of Colorado, all Democrats.
Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Jeff Zeleny contributed reporting.